Political Books: The LA Books Nobody Wants You to Read

MAILANDER’S LA - After paying far too much attention to the recent exhausting Mayoral campaign and the equally exhausting transfer of power, I turned my attention to a Mayoralty whose history has already been written.  I began reading a fine book on New York City: Vincent Cannato's "The Ungovernable City; John V. Lindsay and His Struggle to Save New York."  I only have dim memories of Gotham's urbane Republican-lite mayor, but the book has fleshed out nearly every moment of his much-beleaguered eight-year mayoralty.

New York's politics have produced many great non-fiction works.  When I got to NYC in 1975, everyone--everyone--was reading Robert Caro's "The Power Broker," the book about Robert Moses that won that won a nonfiction Pulitzer. I think they were trying to figure out what went wrong and if it could be repaired--in my opinion, it never really was.

Such books help serve as road maps too--for instance, former Mayor Villaraigosa read one on LaGuardia before he entered his second term.  I don't know how much it helped him.

But it led me to think: where are those great LA political books? I find "City of Quartz" annoyingly pedantic and a little too familiar.  Where is the great book on Riordan, or especially Bradley?

And we haven't treated the decent ones that do come our way very well.  There are books on the legendary Mulholland, but the best one, "Rivers in the Desert; William Mulholland and the Inventing of Los Angeles" is out of print.

"I think perhaps you've identified the problem without stating it," Assemblyman Mike Gatto, a voracious reader and Roman literature student in college, told me the other day.  "There don't appear to be any great, non-fiction books about Los Angeles politics. I mean, I own this old mini-anthology of short stories called "LA My Way" that is like a time-warp into 1980s LA culture, and yes, [James] Ellroy's "Destination Morgue" is the same for the 1950s, but those are both fiction and not exactly modern."

Whenever I reach a literary quandary, I like to talk to the poets first.  My go-to poet is often Suzanne Lummis, such a grand literary figure in LA.  She tells me, "Thomas McGrath's 'Letter to an Imaginary Friend.' He lived and taught in Los Angeles for a good many years -- '50s and '60s I think -- and influenced many poets in LA but has now been forgotten -- or simply never-heard-of -- by those many young, and not-so-young-- poets who idolize only The Beats or Bukowski. But Thomas McGrath suits my idea of Cool.”

"No, 'cool' is too trite a word," she continued, looking something up. "Here is his [1953] statement before HUAC, after which he lost his teaching job":

“…as a poet I must refuse to cooperate with the committee on what I can only call esthetic grounds. The view of life which we receive through the great works of art is a privileged one – it is a view of life according to probability or necessity, not subject to the chance and accident of our real world and therefore in a sense truer than the life we see lived all around us… Then, too, poets have been notorious non-cooperators where committees of this sort are concerned. As a traditionalist, I would prefer to take my stand with Marvell, Blake, Shelley and Garcia Lorca rather than with innovators like Mr. Jackson. I do not wish to bring dishonor upon my tribe.”

Impressively defiant--and "tribe" took me back to fiction, in fact.  The word instantly reminded me of "Weetzie Bat," beloved of prototype hipsters who came of age in the '90's.  "With DOMA down, we're at the end of 'Weetzie Bat' where everyone's grown up," one told me.  "No, we're in the middle of [Steve Erickson's] 'Rubicon Beach,'" another countered.  These books make their ways on to countless LA syllabi--nearly everyone wants you to read them--I'm not sure if anyone does, but they are certainly gladly pushed--and they are far from political.

Neither title is much for me, as I prefer John Shannon and Rodger Jacobs, two hardboiled LA scribes who often find more favor across the longitudes than here at 34°N 118°W.

Absent a great LA political biography, and when I'm not eagerly laboring through the leaves of Cannato's Lindsay years chronicle, I'm also doing a book on land use this summer.  Land use may be writer's poison, at least to every degree that jazz is.  But it is also political, and Roger Sherman's "LA Under the Influence" with its odd confluences of lot-ties and oil rigs and game theory and weird Valley phenomena make for some all too familiar hybrid situations, even when what is familiar would be shocking to most out of our own town.

Sometimes when I am reading about the early Lindsay I am thinking of the nascent days of Garcetti and sometimes of the final years of Bradley.  It would be great to be able to read a political history without having to bring ideas about our city through the filter of another.


But unfortunately, to read comprehensively satisfying political tomes, we're still obliged to read about New Yorkers, and draw our extended if likely imaginary parallels.

(Joseph Mailander is a writer, an LA observer and a contributor to CityWatch. He is also the author of Days Change at Night: LA's Decade of Decline, 2003-2013. Mailander blogs here.)  





Vol 11 Issue 54

Pub: July 5, 2013